Tame Toxic Office Syndrome

November 1, 2002

Your goal is to build a successful real estate sales organization, and you think you have a good plan. It goes like this: Hire talented, motivated individuals; give them a desk, a phone, and the training they need; and then step back and let ’em go. You’ve done your job, and now you can relax and watch your stars blend together into one big happy family, right?

Wrong! Building a sales team is one thing; getting them to work together is another. Creating, and protecting, a good work environment is one of a real estate manager’s most important tasks.

And that’s sometimes easier said than done. Real estate offices are typically filled with strong-willed, “I-didn’t-get-where-I-am-by-backing-down” types who get paid only when they’re successful. Add to that the fact that real estate sales is a stressful business, and it’s easy to understand why the real estate office offers an environment ripe for internal conflict.

That’s not to say all conflict is bad. The last thing you should want is a complacent office. Every once in a while, you need associates willing to challenge one another over who brought in the customer. If associates’ spheres of business aren’t bumping into one another, there’s a good chance your office isn’t getting as much traffic as it can. Properly channeled, conflict between associates is a sign of a vibrant workplace.

But too much conflict can have a crippling effect on team morale, individual morale, and ultimately sales production and client satisfaction.

So how do you fight toxic office syndrome? It begins with an understanding that every member of the team has responsibility in the creation and maintenance of a productive office environment.

To that end, there are three goals you should focus on: creating the right atmosphere, setting expectations, and enforcing rules.

Atmosphere matters

A real estate office is like an organism. It evolves and, over time, takes on a persona of its own. It’s important to recognize that your company’s persona is influenced by the strongest personalities in your office. In most cases, the strongest influence should be yours—the manager’s.

This doesn’t mean you should rule with an iron fist. But inasmuch as a real estate office is full of strong personalities—some positive and others not so positive—you can’t leave the office’s persona to be created on its own.

Basic things you can do include making sure the office is kept clean, maintaining supplies, and keeping the computers and copiers working. It’s also important to have policies in place to address a host of issues, such as floor time leads, multiple offers, and dispute arbitration among associates.

And there’s more. The way you carry yourself contributes to workplace mood. Be aware of what you’re projecting, because your associates are gauging you and responding to what they sense you’re feeling. If you’re angry, depressed, or frustrated, your associates will sense that and react to it. If you’re upbeat, your team will reflect that.

Finally, treat your associates as fairly as possible. Complete fairness is an unreachable goal, but trying to be consistently fair will go a long way to helping stifle a bad work environment.

Say what you expect

A good work environment doesn’t happen on its own. You make it happen by planning and by motivating your team to buy into your goals. Standards for dress, conduct, and language need to be established up front and then shared with your team.

Many factors that contribute to a bad environment can be traced back to dealing disrespectfully with others. Therefore, it’s necessary to make sure everyone on your team—associates and support staff—knows which behaviors are encouraged and which aren’t acceptable. The more clearly you convey these expectations, the more likely it is that your team will adhere to them.

When you discuss expectations with your salespeople, seek confirmation that they’ve heard and understand you. In an ideal world, you’d set the tone and your job would be done. Unfortunately, there are times when your expectations will be neither understood nor accepted.

Share your expectations during the hiring process and then demonstrate them through your behavior every day. When you find associates going the extra mile to create a good work environment, mention it at your weekly meeting. You may even want to create a team player award to go with your monthly top sales and top listing awards.

Be the enforcer

If communicating your expectations is tough, enforcing them is even tougher. If you find associates disregarding your standards, what do you do?

Say you overhear one of your associates badmouthing a colleague to a client. Or a salesperson saunters in wearing clothes that are clearly inappropriate for the office. Or an associate fails to show up for floor time duty, inconveniencing everyone in the office.

If you do nothing, you can expect more trouble; your inaction will be seen as an endorsement of the unacceptable act. Let one associate muscle in on another’s client, and you can expect other associates to follow suit when the opportunity arises. Allow one associate to come in dressed too casually—“I’m only stopping in to make copies”—and you’ve just told everyone that’s okay.

Stepping in and trying to correct behavior that’s inconsistent with your expectations may not make you popular with offenders or their supporters, but it’s an important part of your job.

What happens if, after taking offending associates aside to explain that their behavior isn’t acceptable, they don’t change their ways? You’re then faced with a decision: Either accept the bad behavior and its consequences—a toxic work environment—or ask the offending team members to leave.

Dismissing productive associates is difficult to do, especially when you consider the revenue you’ll lose. But don’t be deterred. Chances are your remaining associates will appreciate your decision. And it’s reasonable to expect that their numbers will increase in a “detoxified” environment.

What’s more, your strong action sends a message that you take seriously your responsibility to maintain a positive work environment. That message in turn will change how your associates see their own role in the office, resulting in a better environment, more productive associates, and ultimately more satisfied clients.

Striking the right chords for office harmony

A good work environment is everyone’s responsibility. Give your salespeople these dos and don’ts for making the workplace better for everyone.

  • Don’t gossip. No one gains by it. If you wouldn’t say something to a person’s face, don’t say it behind the person’s back.
  • Do dress appropriately. You show a lack of respect when you come in looking unprofessional.
  • Don’t come to the office without productive work to do. Wandering around the office distracts those who are busy.
  • Do ask new customers whether they’re already working with another associate in the office. Never take another associate’s client or customer.
  • Don’t criticize a colleague in public. Do thank the receptionist, secretary, manager, and other staff. Their jobs are often thankless.
  • Don’t whine or gripe. If you see a problem in the office, either work to create a solution or keep quiet. Complaining never solved anything and it bothers others.
  • Do support new associates. A smile and encouraging words go a long way. Remember, you were new once, too.
  • Don’t promote yourself at the expense of your colleagues. Ads that scream “The best in the company” minimize the accomplishments of those you work with.
  • Do keep a sense of humor. Selling real estate isn’t brain surgery or hostage negotiation. Have fun with it.

Matt Williams, CRS®, is regional director for Realty Executives in New York and owner of Realty Executives–Williams Sykes Realty, Wappingers Falls, N.Y. He can be reached at 845/223-9960.

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